Charles Baudelaire: Romanticism to Modern Symbolism
“What is pure art, according to the modern idea? It is the creation of an evocative magic containing at once the object and subject, the world external to the artist and the artist himself”, stated Charles Baudelaire. Death, lament, demise, desire, sublime, obsession, and the unobtainable are all consistent themes throughout nineteenth century literature. As Baudelaire analyzed and dissected each of these theories within literary works, his writing became more involved with the philosophy and concepts- serving as an important link in the transition between 19th century romanticism and modern symbolism.
Baudelaire was first introduced to the arts at a very young age. His father, Francois Baudelaire, wrote poetry and painted frequently. Around the time of 1836 Baudelaire began to write his own poetry, which his professors deemed as “affectations unsuited to his age”(V). By this time Baudelaire had already come to terms that he was naturally a very solitary person, being an only child. In 1839 Baudelaire studied law at the Ecole de Droit while living a “free life” in the Latin Quarter. He began to spend a lot of his time with prostitutes, specifically Sara la Louchette “Squinty-Eyed Sarah”, who he refers to in some of his earlier work. Although Baudelaire was living a “free” and lavish lifestyle, he often struggled with mood swings of insufferable gloom and melancholy. It wasn’t until 1847 that he discovered Edgar Allan Poe. Baudelaire was astonished at how he and Poe shared many of the same ideas of torment and distraught within their literary works. He began to translate Poe’s stories into French, which then turned into a permanent job. One of Poe’s work, in particular, The Fall of the House of Usher, encompasses so many of the themes within gothic romanticism that parallel to Baudelaire’s writing. So many of Poe’s writings also paralleled to his own obsessions and consumption. He was very interested in using devices such as mirroring elements and creating dichotomies of macabre irony within his works. Many of his stories are seen as psychological thrillers because they rely on the readers’ analysis to make the meaning of them apparent. His works examine the depths of the human psyche and resonate with a sense of imminent doom by the end of the story. (V)
In 1857 Baudelaire published the first edition of Fleurs du Mal (Flowers of Evil), which became quite controversial. Baudelaire broke away from traditional verse in poetry and wrote an anthology comprised of five main parts: Spleen and Idea, Flowers of Evil, Revolt, Wine, and Death. Each section includes poems that correlate to themes such as death and loss, torment and obsession, the beautiful yet tragic, and the desolate and sublime. Baudelaire’s poems inflicted the public in such a crude way that several of his poems were banned from print. While the poems dealt with racy subject matters and controversial ideas, what Baudelaire was really doing was holding up a mirror to the public. Much of his writing confronted the anxieties of being such isolated humans. All of a sudden there became an acrid truth to reality in the way that Baudelaire so casually and latently wrote about the daily life of living in Paris and certain blasé lifestyles.
While the majority of society remained insulted by Baudelaire’s avant-garde poetry, nonetheless, there was a growing progression towards a resonance of philosophical concepts into the publics conscious. Artists were becoming prime intermediaries between philosophical ideas and visual representation. Influenced by many of Baudelaire’s essays, the theoretical argument of art became the subject itself. Baudelaire writes that many of the contributing elements to this progression were a result from the freedom that a young artist had during the time. There was so much freedom and choice as to how each young man could utilize his recreational time. Baudelaire suggests that this freedom can lead to a loss of traditional order, the loss of skill in communication, and a gain in isolation and loneliness. In a sense, Baudelaire could be writing from experience and his lifestyle of living off of his inheritance for a substantial amount of time while spending the majority of his money on clothing, museums, hashish, and opium. Going back to the artist however, Baudelaire brings up a theory that as a young artist, there are two routes that can be taken. The first being that you can subjugate all themes of chaos “to the constructive powers of rational mind”- meaning that beauty, significance, and importance exist only in “realms of the reasonable”. According to this route, true freedom is only possible when logical rules are established. The second route Baudelaire describes deals with bringing out beauty and contents through a higher spiritual force- the Imagination. Baudelaire describes the Imagination as a deeply personal and cultivated intuition. The power of reason is no longer important and/or relevant. To access the Imagination, an artist must be willing to succumb to oneself and become independent from “rationally fixed spatial and temporal limits”. (II)
Within these theories is where the link between literary aesthetics and symbolic aesthetics in visual art take place. Paintings and images developed a growing connotation that the image and work should resonate within the viewer deeper and deeper much like the developed style of Poe and Baudelaire. Romanticism had strong characteristics of having things not be as they seem- filled with psychological layering and structure that mirrors the subject. Baudelaire thought that the imagination would be one of the most important tools to utilize in search of this result. The imagination would be an all-encompassing faculty that would be required to dominate all of the other mindsets in order to be successful. Essentially, the Imagination is simultaneously the most creative and scientific. The Imagination is capable of delving into deeper surfaces of perception and will allow us to see things in one synoptic glance: Topical coexists with the eternal; nature coexists with the supernatural; moral with the metaphysical. (II)
Romanticism lent itself to such a great influence on the Symbolists because of it’s heightened expressive qualities of the individual. Symbolism in painting developed from a “synthesis of form and feeling”. Emotions and ideas took place of Naturalism and Realism and the artists’ subjectivity became prevalent. Symbolism encompassed themes of death, anguish, unrequited love, loneliness, isolation, and sexual desires put together in dreamlike worlds. While the majority of the Symbolists have their own style, they all shared a common “pessimism and weariness of the decadence they perceived in modern society”. Odilon Redon, influenced by both Baudelaire and Poe, picked up on this and began to make work that encompassed some of the same enigmatic depth. Redon worked within the same theories as Baudelaire’s writing and was able to reach a level of subconscious through the imagination. “I submitted to the torments of imagination and the surprises she gave me under my pencil; but I directed and led those surprises in accordance with the laws of the organism of art which I know, which I feel…”(I) Much of Redon’s inspiration came from nature but in the process of working, he would then surrender himself to his subconscious to work intuitively from the external world around him. Because of this his drawings and prints were highly narrative; however, relied on a more conceptual dreamlike structure. His paintings almost always include monstrous forms and creatures isolated within empty voids in space. The environments that he creates feel fantastical because they reach beyond the tangible world. Redon’s work has a stream of consciousness feel without uncertainties while still maintaining a rational logic. Many of his prints can be seen as a precursor to surrealism by his use of nonsensical symbols and figures that illustrate chimerical encounters. (I)(VI)
Baudelaire developed many theories that contributed towards the progression of symbolism in not only literature, but also art. His avant-garde writing forced the public to consider what it felt like to be such isolated beings and confronted issues of self-portrait vs. reality. He brought themes of decadence and modern society to light proving to be a great influence on issues of the aesthetic and philosophical development of visual art. Symbolism encompasses his fundamental theories- leading art to push beyond the external world and into a much more intimate psyche.
I. Redon, Odilon. Odilon Redon - I Am the First Consciousness of Chaos: The Black Album. Ed. Candice Black. [S.l.]: Solar, 2010. Print.
II. Baudelaire, Charles. The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays. 2nd ed. New York, NY: Phaidon, 1995. Print.
III. Taylor, Joshua C., ed. Nineteenth-Century Theories of Art. Berkely and Los Angeles, California: University of California, 1987. Print.
IV. Charles Baudelaire: Fleurs Du Mal/ Flowers of Evil. N.p., n.d. Web. 9 Feb. 2013.
V. "Charles Baudelaire (French Author)." Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica, n.d. Web. 9 Feb. 2013.
VI. Myers, Nicole. "Symbolism". In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/symb/hd_symb.htm (August 2007)